Mexico’s delicate dance with democracy

Biden visits Mexico this week. Will he find a reliable partner, or a country in crisis?

MEXICO CITY — On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 13, Mexico City’s streets saw an unusual scene: thousands upon thousands of pink-clad protesters, marching along the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main thoroughfare. The demonstrators were calm and orderly, some of them dressed as if they came straight from Sunday Mass, with pink T-shirts pulled over their button-downs or dresses. Many, if not most, appeared to be middle-aged or older. The casual observer might have mistaken the demonstration — perhaps the largest in North America last year — for some kind of massive parade.

Marchers carried banners and flags; a handful beat drums. On occasion, they chanted in short, measured increments, before defaulting back to their march. “Why did we come? To protect the INE!” they’d repeat, perhaps a half-dozen times, then return to a muted chatter.

The INE, for which they’d come in the tens (and probably hundreds) of thousands, is the National Electoral Institute. It is the government organization that oversees elections across the country, and after decades of one-party rule in Mexico, the INE has become synonymous with democratic elections. In the months prior to the march, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to as “AMLO,” had proposed a series of changes to the INE, ones that would shrink its size and consolidate its power.

López Obrador argued that his proposal would make Mexico’s elections more democratic and less expensive. His critics in Mexico, however, said it was an attempted power grab, an effort to secure the 2024 presidential election for his own party, Morena.

The nonprofit Human Rights Watch came out against the proposal, saying it would put “free, fair elections at risk.” Even Idaho Sen. Jim Risch — who serves as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — encouraged López Obrador to “immediately” reverse course. “President (López) Obrador’s proposal to disband the country’s electoral authority would erode an autonomous and well-respected institution that has served the Mexican people well,” Risch told the Deseret News.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s neighbor to the north, the U.S., is dealing with its own hotly contested debates over the fairness and trustworthiness of elections. After 200 years (to the month) of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Mexico now faces what some see as a parallel struggle as President Joe Biden visits Mexico for the first time as president Monday.

The Mexican people, at least on this recent Sunday morning, intended to show their president they disagreed with changing INE. They began at the Angel of Independence, a gold-plated statue dedicated to the nation’s liberation from Spain. Protestors walked the two-kilometer distance to the Monument to the Revolution, a gargantuan arch originally built as a palace for dictator Porfirio Diaz, and later repurposed as a memorial to the uprisings that ousted him.

One woman, Laura, told me López Obrador’s proposal would be a “huge danger” for the country’s democracy. Another, a 12-year-old named Mateo, said he came of his own volition, “so that the government doesn’t become corrupt and take away my INE.”

“The increasing Mexican disarray has daily consequences for Americans,” Luis Rubio, a leading Mexican intellectual and chairman of the Center of Research for Development, told me via email. “Following the path AMLO has taken could make it worse.”

Protesters march in Mexico City against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposed changes to the National Electoral Institute (INE) on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

A month after the protest, López Obrador’s original proposal faltered in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies. It needed a two-third majority, and it only received 54%. But López Obrador had an alternative proposal, one he called his “Plan B” — and because it does not require changes to the Mexican constitution, it needed only a simple majority to pass. The same night the Chamber rejected his initial bill, it speedily approved his Plan B. The Senate subsequently passed most of it, too. The Supreme Court is now deliberating over its constitutionality, and the Senate will take up the rest of the proposal in February.

In López Obrador’s attempt to tweak the country’s electoral system, however, he may have unleashed a firestorm. Some observers note that López Obrador’s reforms seem to be unifying a previously fractured opposition, a poor sign for his party, Morena, prior to the 2024 elections.

Meanwhile, most of the opposition parties and two former presidents supported the Nov. 13 march, The Wall Street Journal reported. And though López Obrador himself cannot run for president again — Mexico only allows one six-year term for chief executives — he’ll be supporting Morena candidates up and down the ballot.

Had López Obrador’s proposal made it through Mexico’s legislature, there would have been elements that seemed like obvious wins for democratic elections — those overseeing elections would be chosen by popular vote (at present, they’re selected by Congress) — but there were other elements that raised questions. The ruling party, be it Morena or another, would have permission to maintain voter rolls. The size of Congress would have contracted, too, decreasing the number of members of the Chamber of Deputies (from 500 to 300) and of the Senate (from 128 to 96). 

This proposal failed. Now, Mexico’s Supreme Court is deliberating over the constitutionality of Plan B, a toned-down list of reforms, but one that would be nonetheless far-reaching. Instead of eliminating state-level electoral offices (an element of the original proposal), it trims their size, as well as cutting the number of federal administrative staff. While it already passed through Congress with a simple majority, it wasn’t without a fight: Mexico’s Senate Majority Leader, Ricardo Monreal, surprisingly rejected the proposal. A member of the president’s party, he said it violated the Constitution.

Rubio, chairman of the Center of Research for Development, told me the Plan B proposal is a “very disorganized agglomeration” of “desires, agendas and mechanisms,” with the goal of giving power to Morena politicians.

“Now, (López Obrador’s) concern is a potential defeat in 2024, something he cannot allow,” Rubio continued. “So he is doing everything he considers necessary to prevent it.”

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during his daily press conference at the National Palace, in Mexico City, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. | Marco Ugarte, Associated Press

López Obrador has, so far, been dismissive of the opposition. “It was a political striptease,” he said after the Nov. 13 march. He later claimed “not many people” attended, and called those who did “racists, snobs, and very hypocritical.”

“These are people without moral authority, dishonest, but they have all the right to demonstrate,” he said.

López Obrador dominates the news cycle with daily press conferences, which he calls “mañaneras” (a playful word which means “morning meetings,” but also carries other bawdy connotations). He’s gained a reputation for making up jargon, and his freewheeling style makes enemies as well as supporters — but his supporters know exactly who is not on their side, like the fifis (a colloquialism, popularized by López Obrador, which roughly equates to “hoity-toity” types).

“At the end of the day, the quality of his speeches doesn’t matter,” Carlos Dehesa, a Mexico City-based political consultant, told me. “To divide the country into the bad and good — the corrupt versus the honest — is a mechanism by the president to manage criticism and govern effectively.”

But the government’s effectiveness is up for debate. Some of the president’s methods have been so extreme, like redistributing funds from government agencies toward welfare programs, that some federal employees report having to bring their own toilet paper and drinking water to work. (“In our government,” he responded, “there are neither luxuries nor waste.”)

He’s chopped up existing programs in favor of direct cash payments for those who need it: the elderly, poor students, destitute farmers, out-of-work laborers. 

Midway through his administration, he’d increased welfare spending by some 20% compared to his predecessor. But he also killed what was perhaps the country’s most effective welfare program: Prospera (“Thrive”), which offered financial assistance to impoverished households under a series of conditions (from obligatory school attendance and health checkups for kids to family-planning courses for parents).

The poorest were hit hardest: The families of nearly a million primary school-aged children lost scholarships, The Wall Street Journal reported. From the start of the pandemic to the present, some 14% of all school-aged Mexicans have dropped out. Effective or not, López Obrador’s track record on welfare is not the thing causing the most consternation among his critics. Instead, it’s his attempted changes to the Mexican electoral process.

But López Obrador has been here before. His debut on the national political stage came when he led marches against his town’s city hall elections in 1992. After losing his first presidential run in 2006, he claimed the Federal Electoral Institute (the INE’s predecessor) was controlled by the “corrupt oligarchy.” He then led weeks of protests through Mexico City, claiming he was the victor. And after his second loss in 2012, he bolted from his longtime party and formed his own, Morena.

But, even as opposition mounts, López Obrador — exuberant as ever — continues to boast a 61% approval rating, as good as any executive in Latin America (and seeming light-years ahead of Biden’s 39%). 

“AMLO practically dominates all the spaces of public debate,” Dehesa, the political consultant, said. “It can be perceived that he does not have bad intentions, but also that he does not want things done in any other way other than his own.”

Here’s a president that enjoys massive popularity and stiff opposition simultaneously, one often praised and scorned by the same newspapers. He’s won fans for his charm and his willingness to interact with civilians, like when he posed with a Latter-day Saint missionary on a plane, holding a Book of Mormon. He’s lost fans for the same reasons, like when he spurned COVID-19 guidelines to pay a visit to El Chapo’s mom.

So, when the biggest opposition march of this century protested his proposed electoral reforms, López Obrador did not flinch. Instead, he summoned his supporters to one-up the opposition and have their own march, a celebratory one: in favor of his plan for INE, of four years of AMLO, of two more. Two weeks to the day of the pro-INE march, López Obrador’s supporters flooded into Mexico City from nearby provinces for a march of their own, some traveling hundreds of miles by bus, The New York Times reported.

They waved Mexican flags and marched alongside mariachi bands. Some carried AMLO plush toys. “It’s an honor,” they chanted, “to be with Obrador.”

That night, Miguel Torruco Garza — a member of Mexico’s House of Deputies — took to social media to describe the day. One of the youngest members of Congress, the 34-year-old has gained a reputation among young Mexicans for his commentary on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. With a grin, he applauded the “hundreds of thousands” of people who’d flooded Mexico City’s streets hours earlier. He recounted the great marches in Mexico’s history: Vicente Guerrero’s parade to celebrate the country’s independence; President Benito Juarez’s return to Mexico after his exile; Francisco Madero marching to celebrate the end of the Mexican Revolution. 

“These great men,” Torruco said, “gave our homeland transformation and liberty.” And that day, Torruco said, President López Obrador cemented his place alongside them. “We made history. They will talk about Andres Manuel López Obrador’s triumphal entry for generations to come.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador greets supporters as he arrives at the capital’s main square, the Zócalo, in Mexico City, Sunday, November 27, 2022. | Marco Ugarte, Associated Press

By now, referring to López Obrador as one of Mexico’s great leaders is cliché. López Obrador himself calls his administration the “Fourth Transformation”; the first three, he says, were the War of Independence, the Reform War and the Mexican Revolution.

But Mexico’s political history is hardly linear, and though it is landmarked by its transformations, it is not adequately captured by them. The past century of Mexican history, in turn, is not one of revolution and transformation, but of political dominance. And López Obrador’s chief critics suggest that his administration will not be one of transformation from that recent history, but rather a return to it.

In the early 20th century, the Mexican Revolution ousted Porfirio Diaz, an eight-term president who’d utilized coups and electoral swindling to maintain power longer than any other president in Mexican history. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was formed in 1929 (then called the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, or National Revolutionary Party), and it enjoyed uninterrupted rule for the subsequent seven decades.

It wasn’t until 2000 that a non-PRI candidate won the presidency. But the party never established a consistent ideological framework or practical political identity. Instead, it was a “catchall” party, as the late political scientist Howard Handelman wrote, one that valued pragmatism over consistent platforms. 

PRI was thus both conservative and liberal, both left and right, when the situation required (and when voters demanded). Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, argued the real split within PRI was not over policy, but between “modernizing technocrats versus statist nationalists.” (Stephens was born and raised in PRI-era Mexico City.)

“But the party was united,” he continued, “in its devotion to patronage, repression, corruption and, above all, presidential control as a means of perpetuating its hold on power.”

That repression and corruption often took the form of election manipulation. Power was the mantra, and in healthy democracies, power is bestowed through elections. But Mexico was no healthy democracy under PRI’s rule; its elections did not bestow power, but were manipulated by one party to maintain it. 

The 1988 election, for example, was the first competitive presidential race since PRI took power in the 1920s. Even so, it was rife with fraud. PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari won a number of rural districts with 100% of the vote, some of them with more votes cast for him than there were registered voters. A Los Angeles Times poll after the election found a majority of Mexicans believed there was fraud, but most felt there was nothing they could do about it. Nearly half — 47% — also believed an armed uprising was to be expected within five years. 

They wouldn’t have to wait long. In 1994, armed militants in Chiapas, the country’s southernmost state, revolted, stealing the country’s attention on the very day the North America Free Trade Agreement was to take effect. Instead of taking a triumphant place onstage with North America’s economic giants, Mexico was consigned to damage control, negotiating with armed Zapatistas who demanded social reform and opposed NAFTA’s implementation.

Many saw it coming. “Mexico is in crisis,” wrote historian Alan Knight, a year before the Chiapas uprising. It had been in a crisis for years, Knight explained, between electoral fraud and civilian revolts and rampant crime.

“We might pause to consider how long a crisis must endure before it ceases to be a crisis,” he continued. “Before, that is, people become deaf to the alarm bells and learn to live amid crisis.”

President Joe Biden meets with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Nov. 18, 2021. | Susan Walsh, Associated Press

No one seems to agree on how many people were at the Nov. 13 march. Mexico City’s secretary of government estimated 12,000. López Obrador guessed 50,000 to 60,000. The event organizer claimed there were 640,000 in Mexico City, plus tens of thousands more in Tijuana, Cancun and a dozen other cities across the country and even in some cities within the United States.

Public opinion around the INE is similarly hard to gauge. In early November, Mexican newspaper El Pais published the results of a poll commissioned by the INE itself, which suggested a majority of Mexicans agreed with López Obrador’s plans to restructure the INE. López Obrador’s supporters claimed the INE had suppressed the poll because it was “unfavorable.” But a poll by the Reforma newspaper showed majority opposition to the president’s proposal, with half of respondents saying it is an effort to “appropriate the new institute to control elections.”

Its fate is now in the hands of Mexico’s Senate and the Supreme Court as the nation turns its attention to the North American Leaders’ Summit, where López Obrador will host Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Biden for two days of meetings and negotiations. Biden hasn’t visited Mexico since 2013, when — as vice president — he met with López Obrador’s predecessor

That isn’t to say Biden and López Obrador are strangers. López Obrador visited Biden in the White House for the first time in November 2021. The following June, he boycotted Biden’s Summit of the Americas, claiming he would not attend unless Biden invited the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. (“There can’t be a ‘Summit of the Americas’ if all the countries of the continent don’t participate,” López Obrador said.)

Biden did not relent, and he instead hosted López Obrador in a make-up meeting in Washington the following month.

The visit was cordial, if not somewhat impish; one pair of Los Angles Times reporters described it as a display of a “brotherly sort of one-upmanship.” Biden spoke for 10 minutes. López Obrador followed for 31, orating on everything from inflation to migration to the New Deal. At one point, López Obrador bragged about Mexico’s gas prices, claiming he lets Americans cross the southern border just to fill up their cars.

When Biden visits Mexico this week, the conversation may be markedly more tense. Immigration has again become front-page news in the United States, with the Supreme Court placing a hold on the termination of Title 42, a policy implemented during the pandemic that allowed the U.S. to turn away asylum seekers at the southern border. Last week, Biden announced an aggressive new plan to combat illegal immigration. For months now, the two governments have spatted over energy trade, and Mexico plans to ask for billions of dollars from the U.S. to bolster its solar infrastructure.

When Biden touches down in Mexico City, will he see a reliable partner, now in its 200th year of diplomacy in the U.S., or will he see a country in crisis? Will he characterize the country as a bastion of free speech and free expression, or the most dangerous country for journalists in the world? Will he buy into López Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” approach to fighting the drug trade, or will he underscore the war-like conditions cartels are creating?

The newfound concerns about electoral reform — and Lopez Obrador’s intentions in addressing them — only make the questions more consequential. Sitting across the table, will Biden see a Mexican president who is fighting for electoral integrity? Or will he see a country sliding into one-party rule?

Banners and posters cover the fence around the Senate Building in Mexico City on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

By Sunday evening in November, most of the protesters had cleared out of Republic Square, and the streets were quiet. The occasional remnant of the march could still be seen — a pair of pink-clad individuals walking out of a corner store, a pro-INE sign plastered on a statue, “#Democracia” scrawled in pink letters on a bus shelter.

But less than a kilometer away, at the Senate Building — the one place the protesters knew their voices needed to be heard — the iron fence had become its own Wittenberg church door. There, protesters had plastered the signs they’d carried all day, listing their grievances with López Obrador and affirming their loyalty to the INE.

Whether or not López Obrador’s electoral reforms pass in their entirety is up to the Senate and the Court. Its opponents are as vocal as ever, demanding the INE be preserved to prevent a democratic collapse. But even if Plan B doesn’t pass in full, the challenges to López Obrador’s platform will only become louder, with less than 18 months until the next presidential election. 

Now, 200 years after the U.S. formed diplomatic relations with Mexico, the country faces a turning point. López Obrador sees it as a transformation — an opportunity to revolutionize the country’s welfare state, a rebirth for its economy. His critics see the country teetering toward the dangerous authoritarianism it has lived through before. 

A paper blew off of the Senate fence, and a woman, passing by, picked it up. She wore white pants and a pink shirt. She didn’t carry tape, so she tucked it under the corner of another sign. Perhaps the sign stayed there until all of the signs were taken down; perhaps it blew off again, and another passerby picked it up and reattached it. 

Scrawled with a marker, the paper read: “The INE is the story of a long and successful fight.”